Iraq has replaced Afghanistan as the training ground for the next generation of "professionalized" terrorists, according to a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the CIA director's think tank.
Iraq provides terrorists with "a training ground, a recruitment ground, the opportunity for enhancing technical skills," said David B. Low, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats. "There is even, under the best scenario, over time, the likelihood that some of the jihadists who are not killed there will, in a sense, go home, wherever home is, and will therefore disperse to various other countries."
Low's comments came during a rare briefing by the council on its new report on long-term global trends. It took a year to produce and includes the analysis of 1,000 U.S. and foreign experts. Within the 119-page report is an evaluation of Iraq's new role as a breeding ground for Islamic terrorists.
President Bush has frequently described the Iraq war as an integral part of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism. But the council's report suggests the conflict has also helped terrorists by creating a haven for them in the chaos of war.
"At the moment," NIC Chairman Robert L. Hutchings said, Iraq "is a magnet for international terrorist activity."
Before the U.S. invasion, the CIA said Saddam Hussein had only circumstantial ties with several al Qaeda members. Osama bin Laden rejected the idea of forming an alliance with Hussein and viewed him as an enemy of the jihadist movement because the Iraqi leader rejected radical Islamic ideals and ran a secular government.
Bush described the war in Iraq as a means to promote democracy in the Middle East. "A free Iraq can be a source of hope for all the Middle East," he said one month before the invasion. "Instead of threatening its neighbors and harboring terrorists, Iraq can be an example of progress and prosperity in a region that needs both."
But as instability in Iraq grew after the toppling of Hussein, and resentment toward the United States intensified in the Muslim world, hundreds of foreign terrorists flooded into Iraq across its unguarded borders. They found tons of unprotected weapons caches that, military officials say, they are now using against U.S. troops. Foreign terrorists are believed to make up a large portion of today's suicide bombers, and U.S. intelligence officials say these foreigners are forming tactical, ever-changing alliances with former Baathist fighters and other insurgents.
"The al-Qa'ida membership that was distinguished by having trained in Afghanistan will gradually dissipate, to be replaced in part by the dispersion of the experienced survivors of the conflict in Iraq," the report says.
According to the NIC report, Iraq has joined the list of conflicts -- including the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, and independence movements in Chechnya, Kashmir, Mindanao in the Philippines, and southern Thailand -- that have deepened solidarity among Muslims and helped spread radical Islamic ideology.
At the same time, the report says that by 2020, al Qaeda "will be superseded" by other Islamic extremist groups that will merge with local separatist movements. Most terrorism experts say this is already well underway. The NIC says this kind of ever-morphing decentralized movement is much more difficult to uncover and defeat.
Terrorists are able to easily communicate, train and recruit through the Internet, and their threat will become "an eclectic array of groups, cells and individuals that do not need a stationary headquarters," the council's report says. "Training materials, targeting guidance, weapons know-how, and fund-raising will become virtual (i.e. online)."
The report, titled "Mapping the Global Future," highlights the effects of globalization and other economic and social trends. But NIC officials said their greatest concern remains the possibility that terrorists may acquire biological weapons and, although less likely, a nuclear device.
The council is tasked with midterm and strategic analysis, and advises the CIA director. "The NIC's goal," one NIC publication states, "is to provide policymakers with the best, unvarnished, and unbiased information -- regardless of whether analytic judgments conform to U.S. policy."
Other than reports and studies, the council produces classified National Intelligence Estimates, which represent the consensus among U.S. intelligence agencies on specific issues.
Yesterday, Hutchings, former assistant dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, said the NIC report tried to avoid analyzing the effect of U.S. policy on global trends to avoid being drawn into partisan politics.
Among the report's major findings is that the likelihood of "great power conflict escalating into total war . . . is lower than at any time in the past century." However, "at no time since the formation of the Western alliance system in 1949 have the shape and nature of international alignments been in such a state of flux as they have in the past decade."
The report also says the emergence of China and India as new global economic powerhouses "will be the most challenging of all" Washington's regional relationships. It also says that in the competition with Asia over technological advances, the United States "may lose its edge" in some sectors.
Staff writer Bradley Graham and researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.